Of Gaps And Pretending
At first, Zorian hadn’t even noticed him. That was noteworthy by itself, as Zach wasn’t an easy person to overlook. The boy loved attention and seemed to have trouble staying still and quiet, something that remained consistent even after Zach suddenly turned into some kind of a weirdo time traveler. Today, however, the normally loud and exuberant boy remained eerily silent. He also eschewed his typical tactic of sitting in the back of the classroom to occupy a seat near the front. If his out of character behavior hadn’t caused people to glance at him a bit too often, Zorian would have probably overlooked him.
He was so shocked to see the boy finally present in class that he momentarily halted in his tracks, standing like an idiot in the middle of the classroom. Then, after a moment’s thought, he set off towards the likely cause of his predicament.
His first instinct was to immediately march up to the boy and drag him away into some forgotten corner to clear everything up, but Zach’s subdued appearance gave him pause. Zach’s skin was pale and bloodless, and he was breathing a little too quickly and shallowly for a healthy person. He looked sick. Thinking about it a little more carefully, approaching the boy so directly would be a reckless and possibly dangerous course of action. His loss to the lich aside, Zach was vastly more powerful than Zorian, and Zorian had no idea how the other boy would react if he knew there was another person tagging along in his time traveling adventure. He’d need to confront him sooner or later, though, so he fully intended to make at least tentative contact with the boy. He scanned the front of the classroom, looking for a free seat near Zach that would allow him to study the boy during the lecture.
He didn’t have to look hard – Zach was sitting very close to Briam, and every seat around Briam was empty. The cause was easy to divine: people were reluctant to get close to the angry-looking fire drake he was holding. As someone with future knowledge, Zorian knew their fears were well founded. While the young fire drake didn’t torch anyone (and sometimes Zorian wondered how much of that was thanks to the drake’s youth and lack of ability, as opposed to having self-restraint) it didn’t hesitate to bite and scratch, and it was hard to tell what would set it off. Fortunately, it seemed to tolerate Zorian better than most people, so he simply plopped down into the seat next to Briam, silencing the lizard’s hissing with an annoyed glare. He stared at the fire drake’s slitted yellow eyes until the reptile turned its head and left him alone.
“Wow, you shut him down in an instant,” remarked Briam. “I wish I could control him that easily.”
The fire drake snapped its jaws at the air in front of Briam’s face, causing the boy to flinch back. Briam huffed in annoyance and apparently let the matter drop. Not for the first time, Zorian wondered just how smart that creature really was.
Then, doing his best to appear natural, Zorian turned to Zach sitting a bit further away from him.
“You look like hell,” Zorian remarked.
Zach groaned and buried his face into his hands. “I feel like hell,” he moaned. “What did that pile of bones do to me?”
Zorian’s heart quickened. Zach no doubt expected his comment to be disregarded as a weird metaphor, but to Zorian it was definite confirmation that Zach was also a time traveler. No points for guessing who or what the mysterious ‘pile of bones’ was.
Now… how could he get Zach to talk more without revealing that he knew more than he should?
“Pile of bones?” Zorian asked, his voice curious.
Zach opened his mouth to respond but Ilsa chose that exact moment to walk into the classroom and Zach dropped the issue.
Zorian had to restrain himself from glaring at Ilsa as she smiled at him. Couldn’t she have waited a few more minutes?
Ignorant and uncaring of Zorian’s internal grumbling, Ilsa accepted the list of present students from Akoja and began introducing herself and her class. It wasn’t anything that Zorian hadn’t heard eight times already, so he mostly ignored her in favor of keeping an eye on Zach and plotting how to extract time travel related information out of him.
Suddenly he realized that Ilsa had stopped talking and was looking in his direction. After a few moments he realized she was looking at Zach.
“Mr. Noveda, you look quite ill. Please tell me you didn’t come to my class with a hangover.”
The class erupted into laughter and Zach winced, either because loud noises bothered him in the state he was in or because he noticed the undercurrent of agitation in Ilsa’s question. Either way he recovered quickly.
“It’s not a hangover,” protested Zach. “I just woke up like this, I swear.”
“And you thought that coming to class like this was a good idea… why?” Ilsa prodded.
“Err… I honestly didn’t think it would last this long. I figured it would pass in an hour or two,” said Zach sheepishly.
Zorian frowned. If the sickness was a consequence of the spell the lich had targeted them with that evening (and Zach certainly seemed to think so, if his previous comment was any indication), that would mean Zach had been suffering its effects for the past 8 months or so, as Zach had been absent for that long. Why would Zach expect a condition that serious to pass ‘in an hour or two’?
Why couldn’t there be any simple answers in all this?
“Well it didn’t,” Ilsa concluded. “While I appreciate your dedication to your studies,” Zorian distinctly heard Ako snorting derisively in the background, “I must insist you go home or, better yet, visit a healer. You look like you’re going to collapse any moment.”
Before Zach could say anything, Zorian rose from his seat.
“I’ll get him home, teacher,” he said. Zach gave him a surprised look, but Ilsa just nodded and shooed them away.
Zorian picked up his bag and left with Zach in tow, very pleased with himself. He got a legitimate excuse to talk to Zach in private and a permission to skip a class he had already attended 8 times by now. Could a victory be more complete?
“You didn’t have to do that, you know?” Zach remarked, trailing behind him. “I can get back home on my own. I don’t feel that sick.”
“But if I hadn’t done that, I would’ve had to sit through 2 hours of boring review,” countered Zorian.
Zach laughed, but his laughter quickly collapsed into a painful sounding cough.
“Damn,” he wheezed. “He really did a number on me.”
“Who is this someone you keep mentioning?” prodded Zorian.
“It’s not important,” Zach mumbled. He took a deep breath and fixed Zorian with a speculative look. “Hey. Want to go to the cafeteria and grab something to eat?”
“You think your stomach can handle it?” Zorian asked.
“You bet,” Zach nodded. “I’m starving!”
Zorian shrugged and gestured for Zach to lead the way.
That was how Zorian found himself sharing a table with the cause of his time traveling problems, trying to think of a good opening for a conversation he wanted to have with the boy. Or should he wait for a few days to make Zach get used to his presence? Hmm…
“You know, I find this whole situation very amusing,” Zach said between mouthfuls, shoveling noodles into his mouth and attempting to talk at the same time. Now that was very amusing. His mother always insisted he should aspire to behave ‘like a noble’. She would have a heart attack if he ever adopted Zach’s eating manners. “A good little student like you, skipping class to have lunch with a class delinquent… what is the world coming to? What would your mother say if she saw you now?”
“First of all, I’m not skipping class – I’m escorting you home,” Zorian pointed out, ignoring a snort from Zach. “We just stopped for a meal so you wouldn’t collapse from starvation before we get there.” Another snort. “And my mother would go all sparkly-eyed at who I’m having lunch with and promptly forget I’m supposed to be in class.”
“Ah. A social climber,” Zach said, a sour expression on his face. “Say no more. At least you’re male so she wouldn’t try to pair us.”
“Well, I do have a 9-year-old sister…”
“Don’t go there,” Zach warned.
“Fine,” agreed Zorian. He didn’t particularly want to continue in that avenue, anyway. “So are you going to tell me who roughed you up or what?”
“You’re a lot nosier than I remember,” Zach huffed. “What makes you think someone roughed me up?”
“Your offhand comments aren’t as oblique as you imagine them to be,” Zorian said.
“Whatever,” Zach scoffed. “I just breathed in some weird fumes while I was messing with my alchemy set yesterday, that all.”
Ah, the trusty ‘alchemical accident’ excuse. So cliché, yet so effective. Zorian had used it quite a few times himself. In any case, he wasn’t willing to let go so easily. He decided to risk it and try to provoke a reaction from the boy.
“Must have been some really weird fumes – the aftereffects almost look like soul magic exposure,” Zorian speculated loudly.
Zorian had expected some kind of reaction from Zach, but what he got was quite a bit stronger than what he had imagined. Zach immediately sat straighter in his seat, eyes wide in realization. “Of course! That’s why I’m still suffering the effects, even after the revert! The son of a bitch targeted the very thing that gets sent back – my soul!”
There was an eerie silence in the cafeteria as everyone stared at the crazy boy shouting nonsense in a crowded dining hall. Zach slowly lowered his hands (he had been gesticulating wildly during his little speech) and mumbled an apology that was too quiet for anyone but Zorian to hear. Scattered laughter rippled through the gathered students for a few moments before everything finally returned to normal.
“Err…” started Zach. “Maybe we should continue this at the fountain, yeah?”
“I don’t know,” remarked Zorian carefully. “If you intend to be this loud, I don’t think it will do much.”
“Oh ha ha,” grumbled Zach. “So I got a little excited... not everyone is an ice cube like you Zorian.”
“Ice cube?” asked Zorian, an undercurrent of warning in his voice.
But Zach was already packing, and Zorian could do nothing but huff in annoyance and follow after him. Still, Zach’s little outburst answered a few of his questions. So it wasn’t his memories, or even his mind that got sent back – it was his soul. That would certainly explain why his spellwork and shaping skills didn’t disappear every time he started over. It was common knowledge that magic was heavily connected to the soul, even if no one really knew the exact mechanism of their interaction.
When they finally reached the fountain, Zach seemed to be in a contemplative mood so Zorian took a moment to study the schools of colourful fish swimming in the basin of the fountain. He actually pitied the poor things, since they were unlikely to last long. For years the fountain had been in disrepair, and it was only due to the grander-than-usual summer festival that it was renovated. How likely was it that the Academy would continue to maintain it after the occasion passed? Not very. And it was even less likely it would be kept in a good enough condition for the fish to survive. Their days were numbered.
“Zorian…” Zach prodded.
“Tell me… what do you know about time travel?”
Zorian blinked. Well. That was direct.
“Time travel?” Zorian asked with as much confusion as he could fake. “Not much, I guess. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Ugh, well…” Zach fumbled with words, scratching his chin nervously. “You’ll probably think I’m insane, but I’m a time traveler of sorts.”
Wow, Zach really didn’t have a subtle bone in his body, did he?
“You don’t look very old,” Zorian remarked. “If you come from the future it must not be a very far one.”
“No, no, it’s more like… the whole world resets itself on the night of the summer festival, and I’m the only one who remembers what happened.”
That was an interesting way of explaining it, though the idea of a spell affecting the whole world was even more ridiculous than the idea of working time travel magic.
“I’ve lived through this month… god, at least 200 times by now,” continued Zach. “Honestly, I’m starting to lose count.”
“Wait, you’re talking about it like you can’t stop it,” said Zorian, unable to keep a tiny bit of alarm out of his voice. Luckily, Zach appeared to be too agitated to notice.
“That’s just it, I don’t know if I can stop it!” Zach shouted, before he realized what he was doing and quieted down so as to not attract unneeded attention. “I was hit by this spell in the previous revert, and its effects didn’t completely go away when I reverted into the past.”
Zorian frowned. ‘Previous revert’? What about the other 7? Did Zach somehow skip those or did he simply not remember them? It occurred to Zorian that the after effects of the lich’s spell could have been even more serious than what he was currently looking at – what if Zach had spent the past 7 restarts in a coma? Though that begged the question of why his guardian had reported him as missing instead of bringing a healer.
“I guess it really was a soul magic spell like you said,” continued Zach. “I need to watch out for those from now on. Anyway, at first I thought it’s just some nasty sickness that’ll pass, and to a degree I was right. I already feel a lot better than I did this morning. It’s just that it wasn’t only my body that was affected – my mind has been a little spotty ever since I woke up.”
“I don’t remember how I started this time loop,” concluded Zach, confirming Zorian’s fears. “Or whether it was me who started it in the first place. My memory is full of blanks like that at the moment. I’m hoping it will all come back to me but…”
Zorian stared at the other boy, stony faced. Basically, they were both in deep shit.
Zach seemed to interpret Zorian’s serious look a little differently, though.
“You don’t believe me,” he concluded.
“It’s pretty far-fetched,” Zorian said. If he hadn’t lived through it, he wouldn’t have believed him, no. “But I’m a pretty open-minded guy. Let’s pretend you’re right for the moment. What’s that got to do with me?”
Zach arched an eyebrow at him, apparently incredulous about something.
“Huh,” he said. “You’re really different from your other self.”
“My other self?” Zorian asked curiously.
“Yeah,” Zach nodded. “My memory may be spotty about some things, but I definitely remember you. Mostly because you kept dying at the start of the attack…”
Zach mumbled the last sentence in a quiet voice that probably wasn’t meant to carry but did. Zorian pretended he didn’t hear it.
“You’re different than you used to be,” Zach said. “You were more irritable, and always busy with something or other. You never believed me when I tried to tell you about the whole time travel thing – you thought I was trying to make fun of you.”
Well… that kind of story sounded exactly like something his brothers would try to fool him with. And Zach did have a great many things in common with those two already.
“You’ve changed,” Zach concluded. “You’re a lot calmer. More laid-back, I guess.”
Zorian frowned. He didn’t think he changed that much in personality, but he supposed it would be hard to not change when going through something like this. To say nothing of the fact that more than 8 months had passed since the restarts started for Zorian.
“So, wait… why did I change then?” Zorian asked. “Didn’t you say the whole world resets itself?”
“Don’t know,” Zach shrugged, then gave him a speculative look. “Come to think of it, you were there too, weren’t you?”
Zorian gave him a confused look. He wasn’t going to get baited that easily.
“No, of course you don’t remember,” Zach sighed. “Do you at least feel a little different lately or something?”
“Come to think of it… yes,” confirmed Zorian. “I chose different electives than I intended to, for no good reason really, and I did a bunch of other strange things ever since I came to Cyoria.”
Zorian’s motivation for saying that was two-fold. First of all, he wanted to see how Zach would react to the idea of another person going through the time loop with him. Secondly, he wanted to lay the groundwork for an explanation why he’d be acting differently in every restart, in case he decided not to tell Zach about himself.
He was surprised that Zach was so willing to believe him, though. Apparently even after all this time (nearly 17 years, if the other boy was to be believed), Zach still haven’t developed an ability to effectively read people. That, or Zorian really was that good of an actor.
“Strange,” was all Zach said.
“Yeah,” Zorian agreed. “So… any advice a time traveler can tell a mortal like me? A secret spell of awesomeness, maybe?”
“To be honest, most of the spells I know are combat ones,” Zach admitted. “I’m really good at combat magic, which is good because I need to be good at it. There is… something I’m trying to stop.”
“Something involving the mysterious adversary that messed you up?” tried Zorian. He really wanted to work the invasion into the conversation but didn’t know how to justify knowing anything about it. “Do you remember how that happened, at least?”
“Ugh,” grunted Zach. “Mostly. I distinctly remember you being there, but you probably died right at the start of the battle – no offense Zorian, but you aren’t much of a fighter – and then I stupidly charged in, thinking myself invulnerable.”
“Why would you ever think that?” Zorian asked, honestly confused. “That you’re invulnerable, I mean. Doesn’t it strike you as dangerously arrogant to perceive yourself as invincible?”
“Do you know how many times I’ve died in these reverts?” protested Zach. “My memory is failing me again, but it was a lot. You tend not to take it too seriously after a while. And it’s not like I was too far off – I just have to watch out for necromancy next time, right?”
“Not just necromancy,” Zorian replied with a heavy sigh. “There is also mind magic to worry about. Aside from the obvious possibility of ending up as a mind thrall, you could also end up with more than a few gaps in your memory – you could have your whole mind blanked out. Then there is a possibility of having a geas forced upon you if you’re too careless, which also bind to the soul as far as I know. Some creatures, such as wraiths, eat souls – that’s another thing to worry about. And there are a couple of methods of sealing away a mage’s ability to do magic, which might very well stay with you when you… ‘revert’.”
Zach was silent, but Zorian could have sworn he had gotten even paler as he listened to Zorian speak.
“And that’s just a couple of points off the top of my head,” finished Zorian. “I’m only an academy student, and I don’t know anything. It’s obvious w- err, you are not invulnerable. Okay?”
Zorian swallowed heavily. That was close. It was fortunate that Zach was so oblivious, because had the situation been reverse, he would have called Zach out on it ages ago.
“Wow, you almost sound like you care,” Zach finally said with a nervous chuckle. “You really do believe I’m a time traveler now, huh?”
Zorian shrugged. “I’m not completely convinced, but it’s not something that’s worth fighting over in my opinion. If you say you’re a time traveler, then we’ll pretend you’re a time traveler.”
Yes. Until he got a better feel for Zach’s character and understood what the deal was with the time loop, he would pretend.
* * *
When Zorian finally returned to school, having missed both the remainder of essential invocations and the following lecture about magical law, he was beset by curious classmates and Ako. Ako was easy to deal with, since she only wanted to scold him for taking too long and warn him she recorded his absence in the attendance record. Zorian was pretty sure the only person, teachers included, who cared about what was written on that list was Akoja. The ones that wanted to know what’s wrong with Zach were also easy. It was an alchemical accident.
What? It’s the excuse Zach used!
Unfortunately, many people also wanted to know why he had suddenly volunteered to take him home, or what had taken him so long. Nosy, nosy people. And they were persistent too, refusing to leave him alone for the rest of the day. When Zorian finally reached his room he immediately locked his door and breathed a sigh of relief. He finally had enough time to think about what he found out today.
Zach was confident he would be fine by tomorrow, and that his memory would come back to him. Zorian was not nearly as confident. That Zach had a 7-month gap in his memory (and possibly existence) suggested something very serious had been done to him. Why hadn’t Zorian suffered anything of the sort? Well… maybe he had. He had felt uncharacteristically tired in his first restart, but had written it off as mental stress. Maybe he had only been caught at the very edge of the spell and thus only suffered minor damage, or maybe his ‘first restart’ was only the first one he had memory of.
It was a disturbing possibility, but there was not much point in dwelling on it much.
It really wasn’t that unexpected, when you really thought about it. The strange time travel effect he and Zach were under had essentially turned them into soul entities. A lich was, at its core, also a soul entity. They were mages that ritually killed themselves and tethered their souls to an object – their phylactery – before it could move on into the afterlife. If the form they currently inhabited ever got destroyed, they’d snap back to their phylactery, and simply possess someone. It would make sense for a lich to know how to fight another lich. And a method that worked against a lich would work just as well against him and Zach.
And Zach had stupidly said as much to the lich at the end of their battle! ‘It’s not like I’ll be dead for good,’ indeed! The lich may not have known what Zach was exactly, but a statement like that strongly suggested he was either a lich himself or some kind of a possessor entity, and from a practical standpoint it wasn’t that far off.
But that was all neither here nor there. The real question was: what was he going to do now? Even if Zach regained his memories (doubtful), he would no doubt want to keep the time loop going until he found a way to defeat the lich. If the boy’s previous altercation with the undead mage was of any indication, that could take a while. And that was assuming Zach was the originator of the spell in the first place. If it happened once, it could have happened twice. He had a sneaking suspicion that Zach might be as much of a stowaway as Zorian was. Was there a third looping person running around?
Suddenly, he didn’t feel as desperate to get out of this thing as he was at the start of it. Getting out might not necessarily mean going back to normal. The invasion was clearly more than a random terrorist attack, and Zorian somehow doubted that stopping it would be the end of it. Something very big was happening, and Zorian was a very small fish. A roach, as Taiven would charmingly say. Inside the time loop, he had a chance to secure his future. Outside of it, he was just another victim.
Besides, if Zach was to be believed, ‘normal’ for Zorian meant getting killed at the start of the invasion. He didn’t care much for that kind of ‘normal’. In fact, the more he thought about it the more it seemed to him this whole thing was a giant opportunity rather than an annoyance. Once upon a time, when Zorian was younger, he dreamt of being a great mage. The sort that legends were made of, the kind that revolutionized whole fields of magic all by themselves. In time this dream died as it became clear he didn’t have the talent, the work ethic, or the right connections to make that happen. He was just a slightly above average civilian-born student with no special advantages to his name. But now? He had all the time he needed to build up an advantage over his peers and become truly great. Greater than Daimen.
He shook his head, abandoning that train of thought. He was getting ahead of himself. He needed something more concrete than a fuzzy notion of greatness to guide him – a clear set of goals to achieve, and courses of action to pursue. Right now, the only thing he could think of was harassing Zach for some tips, raiding the library for more spells, and leveraging his curious monetary situation to improve his alchemical skills.
He was leery about relying on Zach for help. Even if the boy would be cooperative, there was only so much he could learn from the other time traveler without revealing that he too retained his memories each time they reverted to the past.
The library was full of spells, of course, but anything ‘serious’ (that is, that could be used for combat, crime, or spying) was restricted, and he knew from talking to older students that teachers were really stingy with permission slips. Not even Fortov succeeded in getting one, and he could charm a troll into not eating him.
Honing his alchemy skills was definitely an option. The only reason he focused more heavily on invocation thus far was because he had to buy any ingredients he wished to work with, and he was trying to save money. Any serious study of alchemy required a lot of funds – alchemical ingredients were expensive. With his saving account spontaneously refilling after each restart, however, monetary concerns didn’t limit him as much as they did before.
It wasn’t much, to be honest. He needed a better plan. With another sigh, Zorian pulled out his trusty notebook and began to plot and write.
* * *
“Something I can do for you, sonny?” asked Kyron. “The class has been dismissed, in case you didn’t notice.”
“Err, I noticed. I just wanted to talk to you about something,” Zorian said. Kyron gestured him to keep talking. “I hope you don’t find it insulting, but your stated program seems a bit… easy. Practicing magic missile for a whole month seems rather pointless to me, since I already have a pretty good grasp on it.”
Kyron stared at him for a few seconds. Zorian suppressed the instinct to shuffle nervously in place and returned the man’s stare. Kyron seemed like a sort of person who would be impressed by that.
“I hope you don’t find it insulting, sonny, but you just don’t have enough power to be a proper battle mage,” Kyron finally said. “Your shaping skills are rather impressive for your age, but you tire after only 10 shots from the rod. And that just won’t do in any serious combat.”
“Well, I kind of know that,” admitted Zorian. His reserves had increased slightly from what they were when he first tackled this class, so 10 shots was actually an improvement. “Incidentally, is there anything I can do about that?”
“Nothing I would recommend,” Kyron said, shaking his head. “Your mana reserves will grow as your proficiency in magic grows, of course, but so will everyone else’s. You will always be at a disadvantage against naturally powerful opponents, which would be most of the professional battle mages. Of course, I cannot forbid you from pursuing a career as a battle mage, but I definitely advise you against it. There are plenty of magical disciplines where great shaping skills are an asset, but combat magic is mostly about power.”
“I see,” said Zorian. He didn’t intend to become a battle mage, but he had a feeling he was going to need some combat magic, whether he liked it or not. At the very least he wanted to be able to deal with any stray winter wolves or trolls he might encounter during the invasion. “Though my point still stands. Since I can already do the spell well enough, and that’s the only thing you intend to instruct us in for the foreseeable future, I can see little point in attending the class for the foreseeable future.”
“Hmph,” Kyron snorted. “Trying blackmail on me, sonny?”
“It’s fine, I don’t mind. And I do understand your point of view here…” Kyron rubbed his chin for a second, mulling something over in his head. “Wait here.”
15 minutes later Kyron returned with another spell rod, a small booklet, and four ceramic plates. He threw the plates towards Zorian, who hastily caught them before they shattered upon the ground.
“Good reflexes,” Kyron complimented. “They’re actually reinforced, so you don’t have to worry about dropping them too much.” He took one of the spell rods they used in class and grasped it firmly in his hand. “Let me demonstrate something to you. Throw one of the plates to my left.”
Zorian immediately complied, and Kyron wordlessly pointed the rod in the plate’s general direction and fired. He was wide of the mark, but the bolt of force actually homed in on the plate anyway, curving through the air to intercept it. The plate shattered into dust and sharp fragments.
“Again,” Kyron snapped.
Zorian threw another plate, and another bolt of force sped towards it. This one was different, however – it was longer and thinner, like an oversized needle. It hit the plate, but instead of smashing it to pieces it went right through it, punching a hole through the center before dissipating.
“Throw the last two together,” Kyron instructed.
Two plates flew into the air, and Kyron once again pointed the rod in their general direction. Zorian waited for the bolt of force, but none was forthcoming. Instead, both plates were suddenly cut in half by some unseen blades.
Kyron lowered his hand and began to speak.
“The reason I’ll be spending so much time on magic missile is because it’s a very versatile spell,” Kyron spoke. “In its simplest form, it takes the form of a shining bolt of force that travels in a straight line, delivering concussive blasts of force to whatever it impacts. This variant is often called the smasher, and it is a very simple and effective spell. A skilled mage can do so much more with it, however. You can use animation magic to make it home in on a target. You can sharpen it into a point that will pierce things instead of batter them, or a line to cut them – the piercer and cutter, respectively. You can fire multiple missiles instead of one – a swarm, even, if you have the reserves and skill to pull it off. And, of course, you can make the projectile invisible.”
“Invisible?” asked Zorian.
“Yes,” Kyron agreed. “A perfectly cast force spell is completely transparent. The lightshow you usually see is magical leakage resulting from an imperfect spell boundary. The speed with which combat magic is cast virtually guarantees that some mistakes in constructing the spell boundary will be made, and even if no mistakes are made the large amounts of mana pumped into the constructs can easily distort or unravel some of the pieces.”
“So I’m messing the spell up?” summarized Zorian, thinking of the brightly shining projectiles he always got when he used the rod. “Wait, your missiles normally shine too. Is that-“
Kyron chuckled. “Like I said at the start – there are plenty of magical disciplines where great shaping skills are an asset, but combat magic is mostly about power. Most battle mages can’t even make a simple magic missile transparent, much less one of the higher level force spells. It doesn’t hold them back any. Even I usually don’t bother, since the benefits are so marginal. You, on the other hand, need every advantage you can get.”
Kyron pushed the spell rod and the accompanying booklet into Zorian’s hands.
“You are right that you won’t learn much in class in the next month or so. The smasher may be simple, but more than half of your classmates are having trouble with it as it is, and you’re the only one that truly has a good grasp on it. So read the booklet, find some targets to practice on, and make sure there is a friend nearby while you practice to get help if you screw up big. Oh, and don’t hurt anyone with the rod I’m loaning you or I’ll be mad. Come back to me in two weeks so I can see how you’re progressing.”
“Right,” agreed Zorian enthusiastically. This went a lot better than he thought it would.
“Now get lost,” Kyron gestured towards the door. “You’ve wasted my entire coffee break already.”
* * *
Zorian dropped the stack of books on a nearby table and surveyed the shelves. He had decided to try his luck as a library employee again, hoping he would find a way to get around spell restrictions as an employee. Zach had been absent from class for a couple of days at this point, probably still suffering from the aftereffects of the soul spell, so he couldn’t simply trick the answer out of his fellow time traveler. And besides, he wanted to learn those book divinations he was promised before being brutally murdered, and all.
He wasn’t in a hurry to get Kirithishli to teach him those divination spells, though – the magic missile variations Kyron gave him to practice were giving him enough problems as it was. Like Kyron had said at the beginning of the lecture, the problem was that shaping had to be done in an instant and involved shoving a great deal of his mana reserves into a hastily constructed spell boundary. That was easy enough when you just wanted a bolt that traveled in a straight line and smashed things, but trying to weave, say, a homing function into the spell was a chore to do in a fraction of a second. To say nothing of trying to eliminate all the little imperfections and make the bolt transparent.
Which is not to say he made no progress! He could make the bolt curve towards a target even if his aim was a little off, and he managed to make a flawless piercer yesterday. Progress!
“You’re pretty good at this stuff,” Ibery remarked beside him, putting a book on the shelf. “I’m surprised. Usually it takes a while for people to really understand the system we use here. I guess you worked in a library before, huh?”
“Uh, yeah,” agreed Zorian. It was technically true. “It was… surprisingly similar to this one in organization.”
“It’s not really surprising,” Kirithishli said behind him, causing him to jump in surprise. “All state libraries use the same organizing system. It’s a standard enforced by the Society of Librarians. Hell, even the systems of other Splinter Nations are pretty similar.”
“Because they all used to be part the same country?” guessed Zorian.
“It is debatable whether or not the Old Alliance could be considered a unified state,” Kirithishli said. “The name says it all, really – it was an alliance more than anything. Arguably it was the attempt to turn it into a state that led to the Splinter Wars. But yes, being once part of the Old Alliance, the Splinter Nations inherited much of its administrative legacy, including library organization.”
Zorian was starting to understand why Kirithishli had such strained relations with the current headmaster. He knew very little about the man, but what he did suggested he was very politically involved and… well, patriotic. And the country they were living in made its official position clear – there was no ‘Old Alliance’, because the Alliance of Eldemar never ended. It simply shrank. That this was a completely ridiculous claim was self-evident to citizens domestic and foreigner alike, but most found it easier to humor the politicians. Kirithishli apparently went a step further and denied there was a predecessor state to be an inheritor of in the first place. A fiery, opinionated woman that she was, she probably said something of the sort within the headmaster’s earshot. That must have been a fun conversation.
“Hey!” called a familiar voice. “Is Zorian here? I heard-“
“Don’t shout in the library, Zach,” Zorian sighed. “Since you’re back to your usual exuberance, I’m guessing you’re alright now?”
“Yup!” Zach said happily, thumping his chest a few times. “Healthy like an oak. Got an hour to grab something to eat?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m working at the moment,” Zorian protested.
“It’s not an issue, Zorian, we’re mostly done for the day,” Kirithishli pointed out. Then she leaned towards him and whispered into his ear. “Unless you wanted to get rid of him and I’m interfering?”
Zorian waved her concerns away and followed Zach outside. As amusing as it would be to see what Kirithishli would say to Zach to get rid of him, he actually wanted to talk to the boy.
“So how come you sought me out?” Zorian asked. He thought he’d have to hound the boy to get more information, but it seemed Zach had taken a liking to him. He didn’t know whether to be pleased or annoyed by that. It was convenient, but it increased the chances that he’d realize something was off with Zorian.
“You’re the most interesting person I know of at the moment, and the only other person who believes me about time travel except Neolu,” Zach said.
“Neolu?” asked Zorian incredulously.
“She’s an avid reader of speculative fiction and mysteries and is very imaginative and open-minded,” said Zach. “A naïve dreamer, her father would say. It was surprisingly easy to convince her I’m really a time traveler. I guess she wants to believe it’s true.”
“Ah,” said Zorian. He supposed that he knew now why Zach involved Neolu so much the first time he went through this month. He still didn’t know who the other girl was, though, and didn’t know how he might work her into the conversation. “How many people did you try to convince, anyway?” asked Zorian.
“All of our classmates and teachers, the headmaster, and the heads of every police department in the city. A couple of nobles and other influential people.”
“Not very successful, I imagine,” Zorian guessed.
“That’s putting it mildly,” Zach sighed.
Zorian frowned, suddenly realized something. Why did Zach try to convince all those people he was a time traveler? That didn’t sound like something a time traveler that came specifically to stop the invasion would do. It sounded more like something Zorian briefly considered when he realized how utterly over the head he was, but ultimately decided to scrap the idea because he expected the results to be more or less identical to what Zach got.
“Zach,” began Zorian carefully, “what about those gaps in your memory? Are they…”
“They’re still there,” Zach scowled. “I’m pretty sure they’re not increasing anymore though, thank the gods.”
“Hmm,” agreed Zorian. “So you don’t know how you achieved this time travel magic, then? I looked it up, and it’s supposed to be impossible, you know? As impossible as drawing a square triangle, in fact.”
“Well it’s clearly not that impossible, is it?” Zach countered. “But no, I have no idea how I did that. If I did that.”
“If you did that,” agreed Zorian. “From your comments I’m getting a feeling you started these reverts as a common academy student. And I mean no offense, but the Zach I remember wasn’t really the kind of person capable of inventing any spell, much less something as concept-breaking as time travel.”
“Eh heh…” Zach chuckled nervously. “You’re probably right. I used to be really bad at this whole mage business, didn’t I? But enough of such depressing topics, because I’ve got good news for you!”
“Oh?” Zorian asked curiously.
“Yes,” Zach confirmed. “I heard you’ve been trying to learn combat magic.”
“Eh!? Where did you hear that?” protested Zorian.
“Kyron told the rest of the teachers, the teachers told the administrative staff, the administrative staff told the janitors and other low paying workers, they told the students, and the students told me,” finished Zach. “What does it matter? What matters is that I’m very good at combat magic thanks to the reverts, and that I’ve decided to teach you. Think of it as a reward for believing me.”
Zorian gave Zach an incredulous look. He was going to help him out on his own free will? Just like that? No need for any plotting or subtle maneuvering?
“What?” Zach protested. “It’s true, I really am good at combat magic! In fact, that’s the field I’m most talented at!”
Oh, now that’s a wonderful opening…
“Not that I don’t believe you, but how exactly did you get so good at combat magic?” asked Zorian. “I mean, mages are really stingy about sharing combat magic. Even with these… reverts… why would they share them with an academy student like you? Especially since you’re… uh…”
“Known to be irresponsible,” Zach finished for him. “To be honest, I didn’t get the spells I know legally. I wouldn’t recommend my methods of acquiring combat magic to anyone who isn’t a time traveler. You tend to die a lot.”
“Yeah. But you have me, so there’s that.”
Quietly wondering what he was getting himself into, Zorian followed after him.